OLD MAN OF THE MOUND
Short story by Percival Campoamor Cruz
Where did the elves (duwende) and the old men of the mound (nuno sa punso) come from? Were they creatures made by God akin to men? Were men and the creatures of the underground created at the same time? Were men small creatures at the beginning and then grew bigger in time? Or were the duwendes and the nunos big at the beginning and they shrunk? Why were there duwendes and nunos in the world? Perplexing questions, indeed, that could explain the mysteries of the universe if only they could be answered.
Elves were young tiny creatures the size of the human hand. Old men of the mound were tiny, as well, but older elves just as the name implied. Both lived under the ground. Their living places were marked by mounds, thus, the term old men of the mound (nuno sa punso).
If you asked a scholar, he would say that the mound was actually soil that kicked up from the diggings of ants and termites; but if you asked a Filipino, educated or not, the mound was the dwelling of the little ones. The mound was an object of reverence.
The male nuno wore long, white beards. While elves were playful, the nuno had a serious disposition and could be easily upset. Both could make themselves visible to children, particularly after six at night and during the day, between noon and three. Parents forbade their children from playing in the backyard at these hours.
The inhabitants of the mound became very upset when the mound was stepped on or ran over. They became even more upset when irreverent persons intentionally spat or pissed at the mound.
The little creatures got even with intruders by spitting in return and when the spit hit a person, that person became sick. The retaliation was quite equitable. Kick the mound and the foot became swollen. Spit at the mound and the mouth became sore. Piss at the mound and there would be a urinary problem. Ordinary doctors could not treat the maladies brought about by the duwende or the nuno. Only faith healers (arbularyos) could apply a remedy.
One of the remedies was to bring food and wine to the mound coupled with an apology.
For a reason nobody knew, the nuno was attracted to fat females, human beings or animals alike.
Human beings learned from experience. When they walked across a place that they suspected there were mounds belonging to the duwende and the nuno, they asked for permission to pass – “Tabi, tabi po, apo” – which meant, “Please move aside, old man; may I have permission to pass?”
Life in the underground replicated life above ground. The duwendes and the nunos worked using ants and termites as their beasts of burden. The women sewed clothes and cooked. The men gathered food as well as wood for the fireplace. They were good carpenters and mechanics. They built houses and pieces of furniture, small motors and gadgets. The community, or colony, knew how to enjoy. They had feasts and traditions, holidays and sports, dances and concerts, social drinking and mirth.
Lately, Bakol always wore an unhappy face. By the way, nunos lived up to two-hundred years. Bakol who was one-hundred years was, therefore, in his middle age. Many of his kind had been kidnapped. He was feeling bad and angry that one of those kidnapped was his beloved, Tale.
Every minute his wish was to go out and find Tale. He did not care where fate would take him.
Tandang Puten, the colony elder, had already spoken to Bakol. Get on with your life was Tandang Puten’s advice to the distraught being. And Bakol always said he could not forget Tale and he could not move on without her.
The colony was celebrating the arrival of spring. Everyone showed up at the town center in their best colorful clothes to be part of the merriest of all celebrations. Everyone was participating in the dancing and eating and drinking. Suddenly the roof of the mound broke open and everyone got blinded by the glare of the sun. Then fell a net trap and in a quick moment when the net was pulled up about a thousand duwendes and nunos were caught up inside, trapped, kidnapped and taken away.
One eventful night, Bakol decided to walk out of the mound. Outside, he could feel the breeze cool his face and skin, a sensation he could not feel inside the stuffy mound. He could see the full moon above and its moonshine provided light to the surrounding field. Not too far from the mound, he could see a house, the house of Raul.
Raul was a human being who became a friend to the mound dwellers. He played a lot in the backyard when he was just a toddler and, through school-age years, was a regular playmate of the elves. He grew up into a young man knowing a lot about the duwende and the nuno. He respected them and treated them like his own family.
Bakol wandered close to the house of Raul. He heard Raul talking to someone on the phone and he heard that he was leaving soon for China.
“I will handle the situation, Sir. I’ll make sure they cooperate. In the meantime, have patience. Keep the colony well-fed and healthy. . .”
Bakol’s hair stood on end. He heard Raul mention “the colony”. He kept his ears close to the wall and listened to the rest of the conversation. In the end, he thought of what was going on: Raul had betrayed the colony. Raul was going to leave for China, where Bakol’s fellow elves were taken. He promised that the colony would cooperate in the accomplishment of a mission.
Bakol decided to keep an eye on Raul. When he left for China, he would go along. He would hide himself inside Raul’s suitcase. Wherever Raul was going, Bakol knew that he was going, too, to find Tale.
And the trip to China came about.
China had, by then, become a world power. Out of the city of Xichang, also known as, Base 27, China had sent several manned space missions into space and to the moon. Now it was time to send a mission to Mars. Chinese astronauts, called taikonauts, manned the earlier missions. This time China was sending a colony of little beings to Mars. The idea was to send a one-way mission and begin to populate Mars.
The smaller the spacecraft, the smaller the passengers, the cheaper and more efficient the mission would be. To use the least possible space and fuel when traveling to Mars and yet load all the food, water, oxygen and equipment needed to execute the mission and sustain life at the destination planet, smallness was a prerequisite.
According to Fraser Cain, a science writer, the spacecraft followed what was called the Hohmann Transfer Orbits. These were curved paths that took advantage of the orbital velocity of planets to reach the destination. When traveling to Mars, a spaceship already had the orbital velocity of going around Earth. It then fired its rockets to put it onto a transfer orbit with Mars as the final destination. Approaching Mars, it either fired its rockets again, or used a process called aerobraking to use the Martian atmosphere to slow it down. Earth and Mars had to be at the right positions in their orbits for this method to work, and the launch window came around only once every 25 months. This method used relatively little fuel. How long did it take to get to Mars using this method? About 214 days.
Getting to Mars was becoming overly important because the earth’s resources were dwindling and the living conditions caused by nuclear radiation and environmental pollution were getting worse. Mars was the future, the new source of energy and materials, the future home of men should Earth vanish or become inhabitable.
But why send the duwende and the nuno from the Philippines? And why send them against their will? Unfortunately, these creatures of the subsoil had no rights. Space missions had experimented with monkeys, dogs, mice, reptiles, insects – they all had been sent out on missions to space and beyond. Many of them never came back. Unfortunately, the creatures of the subsoil had freedom and rights no better than those of animals.
At the opportune time, Bakol showed himself up to Raul. Although surprised and embarrassed, Raul immediately took him to the colony.
The tiny creatures were in a frenzy when they saw Bakol. They saw in him a hope. They knew that Bakol was strong and intelligent. They could be saved. And after so many weeks of separation and anxiety, Bakol and Tale got reunited.
Bakol worked hard to earn the confidence of the duwende and nuno. He patiently explained to them how noble the mission was. Agreed, the project execution was bad, but then, there were opportunities, he told them. Considering everything, the place they were being flown to could be a much better place than where they were coming from. “The important thing is that we are all together in this. We live or die together,” Bakol put it in one succinct statement.
At last, Bakol’s kind reached out an agreement. Yes, they would cooperate and go along with the mission.
“We have one condition only,” Bakol told Raul and Raul’s Chinese masters, “pull out the ones who are alone, send them back to their homes to be with their loved ones again. As to the rest of us who are with our loved ones here and now, we will all go.”
Finally, as all the kinks got ironed out and the mission now had the consent of the elves (by then called mininauts), China went public and announced the first “manned” mission to Mars. Aboard the Chinese spacecraft named “Nuno 1” were 500 duwende and nuno, males and females, from Pundaquit, Zambales in the Philippines.
When the mission took off, there was a televised coverage, and the whole world saw the Chinese and Philippine flags emblazoned on the skin of the spacecraft.
Bakol proudly whispered to Tale as soon as the spacecraft got aloft, “Tale, we will be the Adam and Eve of our generation.”